The U.S. Senate faces a key vote Friday on extending controversial provisions of the anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act. Opponents who are concerned the bill gives too much power to the government are vowing to fight the measure.
The Patriot Act, enacted after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to give the government greater authority to track terrorists, could expire at the end of the month unless the Senate approves renewal of the legislation.
The bill, a compromise between earlier measures approved by the House of Representatives and the Senate, was given final House approval Wednesday.
But several Senate Republicans and Democrats say the compromise bill does not go far enough in protecting civil liberties, and they are threatening to block the legislation from coming to a vote.
Leading the opposition is Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, and the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act when it was first enacted four years ago.
"This conference report unfortunately does not contain many important reforms to the Patriot Act that we passed here in the Senate. So I cannot support it. In fact, Mr. [Senate] President, I will fight it with every ounce of strength I have," said Mr. Feingold.
The legislation extends controversial provisions of the law for another four years, including ones dealing with wiretaps and court orders for records from businesses, libraries and book stores. Opponents say the bill would give the government access to private records of citizens without having to demonstrate a connection between the records and a suspected foreign terrorist or terrorist organization.
The measure also calls on the government to notify people within 30 days after their homes or businesses are searched under a so-called sneak and peek warrant, which allows police to conduct secret searches of private homes and businesses and inform the owners later.
Senator Larry Craig of Idaho, a Republican opponent of the bill, is particularly concerned by this provision.
"First of all, we [police] have broken and entered into a private citizen's home without telling them," said Mr. Craig. "Does it take 30 days for law enforcement to determine that what they have found is so valuable that they cannot tell that citizen they have broken into their home? Why not seven days, and then go to a judge and prove your worth with the evidence you have established by that break in?"
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, agrees that the legislation is not perfect, but he disagrees with critics who say it ignores civil liberties' protections.
"I think we have been cognizant of civil rights," said Mr. Specter.
Opponents hope to block the measure using a filibuster, a tactic that uses continuous debate to prevent a bill from coming to a vote. Some are advocating a three-month extension of the current Patriot Act to give lawmakers more time to craft a better bill with stronger civil liberties' safeguards.
A procedural vote to end debate on the bill is scheduled Friday morning. Sixty votes in the 100-member Senate are necessary to cut off debate and move to passage of the measure.
At the White House, President Bush urged Senators not to block the legislation.
"That is a bad decision for the security of the United States," said Mr. Bush. "I call upon the Senate to end the filibuster and to pass this important legislation so that we have the tools necessary to defend the United States of America in time of war."
In urging his colleagues to act on the bill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist warned that the Patriot Act expires on December 31, but that the terrorist threat does not.